Aretha Franklin: Jones Beach Theater 27 July 2011

All hail the queen!

Performers give themselves titles all the time. Some ironic. Some ridiculous. And every so often a title that is true. Aretha is the Queen of Soul. And last night she proved why no one would ever dispute that fact.

This second trip to Nikon at Jones Beach Theater was brought about in response to my complaint to Live Nation about the bus situation at that venue earlier this month. Adam, the general manager, answered quickly and thoughtfully and has kept in touch with me regarding all the improvements he’s making to rectify the situation.

Since the buses aren’t running yet (but will be by next month) he picked rtb and me up at the LIRR station. Adam is pleasant and charming and obviously well liked by his staff. We walked through the empty theater and he introduced us to the head of NYC operations for Live Nation. At the VIP section we were told that our money was no good and Adam sat us at a table and arranged for a waitress to keep us supplied with drinks and food.

The VIP section has two tents – one for the VVIPs with a buffet table and the other section (where we were) with a tent for those who want shade and an astroturfed area with tables in the sun. We found a shady spot in the open area and had a view of the stage and could feel the cool breeze off the bay. There was a boardwalk where you could look out over the bay and see the stage. Two men did join us at one point – a father and son. It felt like they thought they might be getting lucky but they had no idea what they were up against with rtb and me.

We watched the opening act, JD & The Straight Shot, a Long Island based blues band, on the screen in the VIP area. The sound coming over from the stage was surprisingly good. JD is actually James D. Dolan the chairman of Cablevision Systems Corporation and chairman of Madison Square Garden. As someone said last night – it’s good to be the king. Your band gets to open for Aretha Franklin. Dolan sings lead and plays guitar. I don’t know if the rest of the band is the same as the musicians who played on the cd (they gave out free copies). Soozie Tyrell on violin was a standout on stage but for the most part they weren’t much different than so many other blues bands playing bars all over the country.

We made our way over to our seats – in the orchestra about 12 rows back. Great seats and a great view. There’s an orchestra on stage – horn section, rock band with drums, electric guitar (Teddy, Aretha’s son), and bass, three back-up singers (they used to sing for Luther Vandross), a woman on tambourine, a pianist/Hammond organist, a guy on synthesizer, and at least two percussionists. Bandleader Fred Nelson briefly led them through something vaguely classical and then switched to various Aretha songs – full orchestration and background vocals with only that great voice missing.

Aretha Franklin was helped on stage – she has a cast on one foot. She was wearing a white caftan with sequins and she looks great. There is little sign of her recent health problems. She did speak some lyrics to save her voice for a mind-blowing end of a song and she took a break in the middle of the show. But Aretha at 90% is ten times better than most people at 110%.

She didn’t make us wait for the hits. The second and third songs were “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and “Think.” She introduced “Day Dreaming” by confirming the rumor that the song is about Temptation Dennis Edwards (“Cloud Nine” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone”). She sang a Luther Vandross song. She segued seamlessly from R&B to jazz when she sang a tribute to (I think) Earl Coleman. Aretha’s new album is being released on her own label through Wal-Mart (Really? No record company wants her?). Despite her former problems with Atlantic, Aretha gave a shout-out to late Ahmet Ertegun and kept waving to the crowd from Atlantic Records in the audience.

On the screen there appeared a photo of young Aretha with a gorgeous man who turned out to be Sam Cooke. She talked about going crazy the first time she heard him sing and that she and the other girls were kicking and screaming and had to be let off the bus to kick and scream even harder. And while sitting at the piano she sang “You Send Me.” When she started playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” I was getting chills before she had sung a note (and it wasn’t the first time I got chills that evening). She ended the song with a rousing gospel sing up to the heavens so every angel can dance finish – I believe that when Paul Simon hears Aretha sing “Bridge” he wishes he had written that song.

She ended the second set with “Freeway of Love” and came back to do “Respect” for the encore. Aretha also let slip where she’ll be playing next – and I’m not telling because it’s a free show advertised as a mystery guest performing and I want to make sure I get a seat.

One huge shame is that the show wasn’t sold out. Adam said she usually plays Westbury Music Theater (which he also manages) and her crowd must want to stay indoors. He did give away a lot of tickets to police, fireman, and others who help them out at the venue.

Live Nation is huge corporation that is comprised of people who really care that their customers have a good time. Their response to my complaint is not unusual for them. They want to make everyone happy and will do what they have to make sure you are. I never once felt placated – everyone was happy to make sure I was happy. Choose a Live Nation venue when you have the opportunity. They’re great guys.

By Carene Lydia Lopez